Miles Kington: Lost fragments from the rubbish dump of art

Over the years, I remember listening to offcuts of JS Bach and unknown bits of Shakespeare
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And what makes it even better is that the poem is very short, so it can be reprinted in toto. I am not going to reprint it in toto, but I will bring you the first six lines, as presented in the Times Literary Supplement:

"[You for] the fragrant- blossomed Muses' lovely gifts/ [be zealous,] girls, [and the] clear melodious lyre:/ [but my once tender] body old age now/ [has seized;] my hair's turned [white] instead of dark;/ my heart's grown heavy, my knees will not support me,/ that once on a time were fleet for the dance as fawns.

You get the idea. At least you do, after you get used to the brackets (where the translator has had to guess) and to the verb and the subject being miles apart. Sappho is surrounded by lovely young girls, says the poem, and feels very old by comparison. I can sympathise, especially when she says that she can no longer stay up for the last waltz but has to go home early and have a nice cup of tea. I know the feeling all too well.

But my faith in the translator's art took a knock when I turned to the Reuters version of the same poem, which starts:-

"You for the fragrant-bosomed Muses' lovely gifts,/ Be zealous, girls, and the clear melodious lyre ...

Notice any difference? That's right. "Fragrant-blossomed Muses" has become "fragrant-bosomed Muses". Now, only one of these can be right, and I fancy that Reuters may have unconsciously tried to sex it up to sell the story to the red-tops. Poor old Reuters. They have never been the same since they moved out of Fleet Street ...

Still, we are getting away from the main point, a point I haven't even made yet, and it is this: It's not much of a poem. If it hadn't been found on a bit of papyrus recovered from a rubbish tip in Egypt and recognised as a bit of the real McSappho, nobody would have ever bothered to reprint it. This is in accordance with Kington's First Law of Artistic Archaeology, which runs as follows:

"When a long-lost fragment of something by some ridiculously famous artist or writer is rediscovered, everyone gets so excited that nobody ever points out it wasn't worth rediscovering in the first place."

Over the years I remember having listened to long-lost off-cuts of JS Bach, or read hitherto unknown speeches from Shakespeare, or even seen pictures attributed to Mrs Timpkins which now turned out to be Titians after all, and I cannot remember any of them being much good. That was the whole point. That's why Bach ditched it, or Shakespeare didn't use it, or why Titian asked Mrs Timpkins to pretend she had done it. That's the way artists, writers and composers work. They look at something they've done, and they think it's useless, and they put it on one side to tinker with later, and they forget all about it and die, and hundreds of years later some artistic archaeologist comes across it and the headlines are wheeled out: "NEW PARAGRAPH BY JANE AUSTEN FOUND ALIVE AND WELL!!"

Look, kid, why do you think Sappho chucked it in a rubbish dump in Egypt in the first place?

I blame the artists as well, though. I blame them for not obeying Kington's Second Law of Artistic Archaeology, which states: "Any artist who intends to be famous would be well- advised to write an exceedingly good poem, play, concerto, whatever, and have it hidden away in a safe place so it can be rediscovered long after their death and add lustre to their reputation."

I will explain how this is done some other time.

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